Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Happiest Business

"The happiest business in all that world
is that of making friends, and no investment
on the street pays larger dividends. Life is more
than stocks and bonds and love than rate
percent, and he who gives in friendship's name
shall reap what he has sown."
~ Bill Gates

We saw the smiling man in the white coat and cap before. While we were having cappuccini at Caffe degli Artisti on Saturday morning, he ordered an espresso, drank it and went to work at the salumeria next door. He did the same thing Sunday morning.

"Buongiorno," I greeted him as he passed our table on the patio. "Come va?"

"Va bene. Va bene. E voi?" he replied as he stopped and leaned on the wrought iron railing. The simple greeting started a 20-minute conversation with our new friend, Aurelio, owner of the salumeria e fromaggeria in Piazza del Mercati.

(Please note: He speaks Italian, and I try, but I'm translating the conversation for convenience sake. If a verb is missing, it's intentional due to the fact that I didn't know some words. I'm also leaving out the fact that I translated what he said for the three others.)

"Where are you all from, Signora?" he asked me.

"Las Vegas," I replied. "Do you know Las Vegas"

"Yes. Yes. Were you born there?"

"No. I born Ohio. Husband, Ohio. Him (I pointed to Bob.) Massachusetts. Her (Steph) Connecticut."

"Why do you visit Spoleto?"

I explained to him that my grandparents were born in Abruzzo and that I wanted to learn to speak Italian better and learn more about their home. I chose to stay in Spoleto so I could talk to the people who live in the town. He lit up.

"Spoleto is a special town. Very friendly," he told me.

"Yes. Yes. I like much."

"What town in Abruzzo? L'Aquila?" He wanted to know the name of my grandparents' town.

"No. No. Pettorano sul Gizio, near Sulmona." I told him.

He lit up. "I know Sulmona. Nice town. I've been there, Pescara, Roccarosa, and the place with the beautiful lake in the mountains."


"Yes! It's a beautiful place, Abruzzo."

"Also, Umbria," I told him, and he lit up once again.

He started to tell me a lot about the history of Spoleto (It's older than Rome.... The Etruscans lived here... The former church at the end of the piazza was built in 900-something.... A lot of Etruscan and Roman ruins remain..... etc.), about his family (He's married and has two children... He and his brother own the salumeria.... The family has been here for 25-30 generations..... He has a cousin in Dayton, Ohio), and about himself (He's not traveled outside of Italy.... He works everyday because if he closes, people will need him....).

He also asked me questions about the others and me.

I mentioned that Bob and Steph were going to Rome on Wednesday and then heading to France next week, and Bob said they were going to look for family history.

"Are you going to Rome, too" he asked me.

"No. We there 2010," I informed him. "Maybe just one day. See Vatican. New pope."

"Ah, Francesco. I think he will be good."

Paolo, owner of the caffe, called out to our new friend. "Gobbledy-gook. Gobbledy-gook. Per favore."

"Yes. Yes. Right now," replied the man. He patted my arm and turned to everyone. "Have a good day. I see you tomorrow. You come by, and we will talk more so you learn more Italian. Ciao, everyone." He rushed into the salumeria and, within 30 seconds, was back with a box in his hand. He popped into the caffe, and when we left, he was still talking with Paolo.

"What's his name?" Mike asked me as we headed down the street.

""I have no idea," I said. "I forgot to ask him because i was concentrating too hard on what he was saying. I'll ask him tomorrow."

Aurelio (Today, I finally discovered his name.) is a great ambassador for Spoleto. He knows so much about the town and its history, and he is very friendly. When we talk, he always tells me a little bit about this and that. For example, today he told me about the earthquake of 1997 and how it cracked walls and floors of the old structures.

He's patient with my Italian. "I'm sorry," I tell him. "Sometimes I mix up Spanish and Italian words." He laughs, pats my arm, and tells me I'm doing great. He forgets and talks fast at times, but he'll slow down and ask, "You understand?" a lot. He must understand some English because he listens to me translate for the others and nods his head.

He also gives us recommendations for buying food and going to restaurants. "You get good meals anywhere in Spoleto," he told me tonight. "No, that's not true. XXXXX and XXXXX don't have good food. Don't go there." (I'm leaving the names out purposely.)

Aurelio saw us at Ristorante del Mercato (two doors down from his salumeria) tonight and came over to talk. He noticed that Mike and I had crescionda spolentina (a specialty sweet of the region) and he asked if we liked it. I assured him that we did.

"My wife makes it very good," he told me and illustrated with his hands that hers was bigger and thicker than what we had on our plates."

"How make it?" I asked him.

"Milk, eggs, chocolate, amaretti." He had a pained expression on his face. "I don't know. My wife make it, and I do a better job eating it." We all laughed, and he was happy again.

Around 8:00, he said, "I'm going to close tonight. I'll see you tomorrow to practice Italian." Remembering that Bob and Steph were heading to Rome tomorrow and Paris on Sunday, he wished them a good journey.

"Domani," Mike said to him.

"Domani," he called back as he rushed to lock up the store.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday, Monday

"We live in a wonderful world
that is full of beauty, charm
and adventure."
~ Jawaharial Nehru

Please excuse me if I don't write any stories tonight. I'm quite tired after a short day trip out of Spoleto. I thought, though, that I'd post a couple of photos and short-short stories that go with them.

The photo above is of Corso Garibaldi, the street where our apartment is, at night. We came home from dinner tonight, and i thought that this particular turn was quite lovely bathed in the light from the overhead light.

Also on Corso Garibaldi is the shop of this shoe cobbler. I can't remember the last time that I saw an actual shoe-repair shop. Yes, yes. I know that there are some around, but most of the time, they have machines and such to repair your shoes. This cobbler is a friendly man who seems to be working constantly.

How many fireman does it take to break into a car? :-)

Last night we heard a lot of commotion outside of our flat, and we looked out to discover the local fire truck sitting in the street below. Next to it were a car and five firemen trying to unlock the door to the car. For over an hour they tried before they finally were able to somehow pop the lock on the passenger door. 'what I couldn't figure out was why four of the five were standing there looking in the windows the whole time. When they opened it, no one took out a baby or anything, so they weren't watching anyone.

We heard another bit of chaos outside the window this morning, and when I looked out, I saw a cement truck backing down Via Gesuiti to Corso Garibaldi. The trash truck was blocking the way, and the cement truck had to maneuver around it. The driver of the cement truck finally stopped directly under our window. Mike was going to throw something into the mixer, but I stopped him. (Only kidding)

One of my absolute favorite pastries here are these cream cakes. Actually, they're called cream cakes in Ireland and something else here. Composed of a wonderfully light dough and simple whipped cream, they're delightful. I do have to admit that I've yet to have one as I'm trying to be good.

Espresso. I love Italian coffee and cappuccino, and this trip I'm learning to drink espresso. We ordered it the other night at Novecento, a great restaurant about a block from the flat. My hair is still standing straight out from my head.  Only kidding. The caffeine doesn't affect me that much. The interesting thing about ordering coffee here, though, is the fact that a cup of coffee is less than 1/2 cup.  People usually drink it standing at the bar.

We like Spoleto. The people are friendly, and food and coffee prices are very reasonable, and the town is easy to walk (even with the hills).

 Tomorrow, the butcher and I talk....

Sunday, April 28, 2013


"Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty;
permit the distinctive sign of our order to be
that it does not possess anything of its
own under the sun."
~ St. Francis of Assisi

"That was it?" Bob asked after we had been in Assisi a few hours.

"Yep." I replied.

"I somehow thought there'd be more."

Let me back up a bit and start the day with the train ride to Assisi from Spoleto. We had left at 9:30 and arrived in Assisi not quite an hour later after a short bus ride from the train station. We walked a short distance up the hill to the lower church and joined the line to get in. The photo above shows the courtyard leading to the lower church, the entrance of which is under the arch.

People walked slowly into the church and crowded al around the aisles talking even though there were signs all over asking for "Silenzio" and Mass was in progress. The crowd moved to the left and swept us with them down a staircase leading to the tomb of St. Francis. We shuffled along and passed piles of tall, thin candles that we could buy and place on the altar near the tomb. The sign read, "Please do not light candles. Place them in the basket on the altar, and we will light them."

Down the long aisle we padded. Baskets full of candles were on both sides, and a young priest interrupted the flow of people to grab an armful of candles and put down an empty basket. We circled the altar (and tomb) and proceeded back up the aisle where I saw the young priest putting an armful of candles on top of the piles that were for sale.

"Did you see that?" I asked Mike.

"I don't know what you mean." He hadn't noticed the priest removing candles from the altar and placing them back in the piles at the beginning of the line.

"With all of the candles they're selling," I whispered, "how do they ever light them all?" There were hundreds of candles moving between the piles and the altar and back.

"Maybe they do it at another church or upstairs," Mike said. God bless my husband. He is not as cynical as I am.

The crowd 15 minutes later (Photo by S Normandin)

We reached the top of the steps and started to walk along the side altars of the lower church. Another young Franciscan was stilling at a desk taking money and handing out what looked to be postcards.

"You can have a Mass said," Bob whispered to me. "Ten euro."

"That's about the going rate in the States, too," I said back to him. "You can get a Perpetual Mass said for that at a monastery near Youngstown. We did it for my mom."

We made our way out of the lower church, and I noticed a glass booth off to the side of the entrance. Inside was another Franciscan priest taking Mass and prayer intentions.

We made our way outside and found ourselves in the midst of hundreds of people who had gotten off tour buses and climbed up to the basilica's courtyards.

"Holy crap!" I'm not too thrilled with crowds. "It's not even tourist season."

Steph added, "I heard more and more people were coming here since the pope took the name of St. Francis."

We walked through the main basilica and out into the ever-growing population in the courtyard.

"Shall we go further into the town?" I asked, and we got swept up the hill with hundreds of tourists heading in that direction.

"Holy crap," I muttered. "I hate crowds."

"I don't remember this many people when we were here in 2010," Mike said to me.

"There weren't." The four of us dodged people, cars (Yes, anyone can drive on the narrow streets in Assisi. The sea of people parts when a car approaches and grows together as soon as the car passes by.), and hundreds of souvenir shops. We finally found a quiet cafe and sat to have a drink and relax.

So, back to that original question. "That was it?" Bob asked after we had been in Assisi a few hours.

One of the souvenir shops (Photo by B Normandin)

"Yep." I replied.

"I somehow thought there'd be more. I can't believe the commercial aspect of this town," Bob said.

"There are so many shops selling the same stuff," Steph added.

"It's pretty disgusting, really," I said. "To think this is such a holy place and to have such commercial excess."

I honestly don't remember if it was at this point or not, but Bob said, "It reminds me of a tacky beach town with all the souvenir shops, only here they're selling religious articles."

"That," I exclaimed, "is the perfect analogy. I think that's what makes me sad."

"You wonder what St. Francis would think of all of this," Steph said. "He's probably turing over in his grave."

"He was against this very thing," Mike piped in. "It's pretty sad."

"How much does the Church get of this," I wondered.

We all just shook our heads.


Inside the lower church,  Get your mass intention here.

We ended up leaving Assisi early, fighting our way back down the hill against the stream of people heading up again. When we got to the bus stop, we found almost 50 people already waiting for transportation back to the train station. The bus arrived, and people forgot that they had just left a holy place.

"Gobbledy-gook! Gobbledy-gook!" they said as they pushed and pulled each other and stepped on others (including me. Thanks for stomping my left foot and reminding me that it is still healing from that last break.)

"Gobbledy-gook! Gobbledy-gook!"

"Gobbledy-gook! Gobbledy-gook!" The others talked and laughed and pushed inside the bus as we went around curves going back down the mountain to the stazione.

"We're okay as long as this thing doesn't tip over," Mike said.

I rolled my eyes and said an extra prayer to St. Francis.

I'm going to leave it at this. I was quite sad to see Assisi the way it is, and I think that Bob's analogy says it all perfectly.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Idle Thoughts (and Photos)


"The use of travel is to regulate
imagination by reality, and instead of
thinking how things may be, to see
them as they are."
~ Samuel Johnson

I can't believe it, but we left Las Vegas a month ago today. I'm floating in that state where it feels like I've been here forever. . . like we live here.  I was thinking last night and today about what I expected, what actually has gone on, and what I've learned.  I thought I'd look back on the past month today and touch on a couple of things....

                                       Monet's Grave

One of the things that excited me about the river cruise portion of this trip was the visit to Monet's home and gardens in Giverny.  Monet truly loved color, light, flowers, and his home.  I like several of his paintings and so looked forward to seeing all of those and the garden at his residence.  What I didn't take into consideration (except for a little bit), was the fact that we were going to be there at the end of March.  The garden was still residing in its dormant, winter state, and it was very cold.Also, there are NO Monet's in either the museum nor in his residence.  :-(

The weather and season were nothing anyone could control, and we survived.  I would have liked to see his paintings in Giverny, but at least we got to see them at the D'Orsay in Paris.  The best part was that I discovered the work of Paul Signac, the painter whose work was on display at the museum in Giverny.

The photo above is of Monet's grave and includes members of his family.  I thought it was interesting that someone placed a paint brush on the marble slab.

Market in Rouen

                            Market in Rouen on Easter

We arrived in Rouen the night before Easter, and we were able to leave the ship to walk through town for a couple of hours.  We headed for the market which the cruise director said would be open.  It was.  The people were very friendly, and the produce was absolutely lovely.  I took a few photos of the oranges and lemons at this stand, and the owner asked me to take his photo.

Markets are, by the way, one of my favorite things to attend no matter where we are.  Most towns in France and Italy have "market days," and some even have a daily market under a permanent roof. 


                                             Van Luc

The day we went to Normandy, the bus dropped us off in a small town near the Canadian and British landing beaches, and after we toured the museum, we walked around the town.  One particular gallery caught my attention.

"Let's go in here," I said to Mike when I saw the cow paintings and metal sculptures.  He agreed (most likely due to the fact that we were frozen and needed to thaw out).  There were a number of posters, paintings, postcards, etc. with varying poses and sayings of the cow.  For example, one read "Vache de Amour," and another was "Vache du Normandie."  I forget all of them, but there were a lot.

"What is vache?" Mike asked me.

"Beats me, but I suppose it's cow in French," I replied.  "I have no idea why they're all "vache du," though."  I asked the clerk, and she told me the artist was in the next room.  We walked down, met Van Luc (above), and heard the story of the cows:  Vache is indeed cow in French, and in Normandy, "Vache du whatever" means an excess of something.  

I certainly wasn't expecting to meet an artist on the day we went to Normandy, but it was a great 30 minutes. You can read more about Van Luc here.

Dogs and Europeans
                              Gaston in Starbucks

We were sitting in a Starbucks in Paris when a woman walked in with the most adorable terrier puppy.

"Look at that baby!" I exclaimed.  Mike turned around and looked at the floor knowing instinctively that I was talking about a puppy.  The little guy was relatively well-behaved although he was constant motion.  "I love that you can bring dogs in here."

"Hmmm," Mike replied.  "I guess it's okay sometimes."  The lady paid for her order and moved to the bar.  Gaston sniffed around a bit, sat, sniffed a little more, and lifted his leg and whizzed on the leg of the bar.  "That is not okay anytime."

He's right. The owner snapped Gaston's leash, but she didn't say anything to the barista, and she didn't clean up after the dog.  It drives me crazy to see that so many people do not pick up after their dogs (in the States or in Europe), but it seems to be a huge problem in some cities.


When we went to Marseille last week, I mentioned that it was not quite what I expected which was a sandy beach outside of the train station. What we found, instead, was a huge city (second largest in France after Paris) on the sea. The train dropped us in the middle of what we would consider downtown, and as we walked, I stared at the buildings.

"This reminds me of the Montparnasse district in Paris," I mentioned.

"It's certainly similar to parts of Paris," Mike said.

We eventually found the harbor, took a tour around the city, and got to see the sea on one side and the large. crowded city on the other. It's not Marseille's fault. The city is just as presented in literature. I'm just glad we spent five hours there and not five days.


If you ever go to France and decide that you want to take the trains, know this: You better not be late.

Unlike the international airline industry, the train industry in France (and Italy, I guess) runs smoothly and basically when scheduled. We have taken a number of trains in the past month, and every single stop in France has been on time. If the stop was a quick one, the train basically stopped, opened the doors to let people on and off, and was on its way again within a minute. Often the train started moving before people got their luggage stowed away.

Remember the old saying about how one can set his/her watch by the trains? In France, that's still true.


The photo above is one I took from the inside of our flat in Avignon looking out to the courtyard which we faced.

"Our neigh-boor, he eez vay-ree nice," Amaury said to us when we moved in. "Deez colt-yahr, she eez heez. We cannot use eet." In other words, keep your butt inside the flat when you're not out exploring the town.

You can't tell from the photo, but there are four or five flats that look onto the courtyard. The man who actually owns the courtyard lives in a flat that is on the second floor and not even centered over the courtyard. To get to his house, he comes in a door on the street behind, crosses the courtyard and goes up the steps and across a small walkway to his house.

Amaury and Giles own the flat in which we stayed as well as the one directly above us. There is a door that opens to the courtyard, but technically, we could not go out into the courtyard since it wasn't theirs. The had to get permission to put a few plants out there, but the guy refuses to let them put a chair or table outside even though he uses the courtyard only to walk to and from that staircase to his flat.

What about the gal who owns the flat on the other side of the courtyard?

"She eez wee-aird," said one of the guys. "Foof. We don' like hair."

On Being Here

I can't believe that we've been here a month already. It seems, as I said above, like we've been here forever.

"I could stay a lot longer, you know," I said to Mike the other day. "Of course, I'd have to consider Jason, Riley and the cost."

"You think?"

"Maybe we could all just move here."

Dead silence.

I do wonder how I'd adjust to living here full-time, though. It would be interesting, but I guess that's a pipe dream.

Tomorrow i'll tell you about our trip to Assisi. It was, shall we say, a rather unholy experience.

My Cousin Vinnie

"If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers,
it shows he is a citizen of the world."
~ Francis Bacon

If you look at the photo that I took of Spoleto (above) yesterday when we were at La Rocca, the palace on the hill, you can see our apartment.  It's in that red-rile roofed building that resides on a narrow street down in the historic center of town.

Confused?  So were we.

We walked up the hill to La Rocca yesterday (In the interest of fairness, we took the escalator most of the way to the top.  Had we not, the four of us would probably have collapsed before we got half-way up the hill.)  We took the round-about way down the hill, stopping to see the duomo and a few other historic sites before getting completely lost.

At this point, I need to tell you that we had a map that the landlord had given us.  Unfortunately, he didn't really point out where the apartments are on the map, and we didn't think to look at the name of the street that we're on.  The only things we really knew were that our street ended in a piazza (something quite rare as there are only about 500 in the historic center), and that there was an arch there, too (another rarity in Italy).

The other thing that I have to mention is that my husband and Bob admit that they don't have a good sense of direction.

"If I come to a place where I have to turn either left or right," Mike always says, "I'll choose left and be wrong 100% of the time."  He's right.  I personally think he married me for my sense of direction.

At any rate, we walked the narrow streets and headed down.  Since we had climbed up, we knew that, at the very least, going down was the right thing to do.  We'd come to a crossroad, and someone would ask,  "Which way should we go?"

"Down," either Steph or I would say, and we'd head down another winding street that would end somewhere not on the map.  Finally, I recognized the name of one street, and from where I thought our apartment was, thought we should turn left.  Left we turned only to find ourselves going in the wrong direction.  Steph and I pulled out the map and studied it trying in vain to find the street we needed to get us to the piazza with the arch.

A uniformed man was standing at my side.

"Bongiorno, signora.  Gobbledy-gook. Gobbledy-gook."

"Scusi? Lenta, per favore." I asked him to repeat what he said more slowly.  I don't know exactly what he replied, but he looked at the map in my hands.

"Weer-a you try-a to go?"  Now, imagine my embarrassment at trying to tell the guy that we wanted to go to our apartments but that we had no idea what street they were on.  I pointed to the one landmark on the map that I realized was close to our apartment since I knew if we got there, we could find the place.  He pointed me in the right direction and motioned down the opposite way from which we'd come.

"You getta dare isy."  I was glad he was confident.  "Where you frome-a? Englanda?" he asked.  (Another side comment:  Since we've been in Europe. we've had a number of people ask if we'r Brits or Irish.  I think the American accent is so different, but I guess the non-English speakers don't hear it.)  We all answered, "Las Vegas," and he got very excited.

"Etat Uniti!  Jee-mee Hen-dreex!  Bobe Dee-lan!  Wood-Stoke!! I loove-a eet!"

For the next few minutes, we talked music with him even though he spoke very little English.  Something popped into his head, and he started signing, "FREE-DOME!!  FREE-DOME!! Who-a sing-a dat?"  When I tell you that the four of us had been talking about that particular artist earlier, you might not believe me, but we were.  Of course, at that particular minute, none of us could remember his name.

He finally gave up, and I mentioned to him that my grandparents were born in Abruzzo.

"No!! Napoli!" he exlcaimed (No, Naples!)


Napoli!!" he laughed back at me. "Como si chiama tua nonna?" (What is your grandmother's name?)

"Liberata Crugnale," I answered him wondering why he asked.

"Mio nonno si chiama Liberato!" he replied.

"Cugino!" (Cousin!) He kissed both of my cheeks, we all laughed, and he started to walk away.

"Arrividerci!" he called back to us as he headed down a narrow street.

Bob, Steph, Mike and I stood and talked a few minutes about how interesting it was to have the officer stop and offer his help.

"Was he military or police?" Bob asked.

"You know, I was trying to understand him, and I didn't even look at what the badge said," I replied. Someone thought he might be military, and I just wasn't sure. We finally all agreed that he was probably a detective or lieutenant of some sort. After a few minutes, we headed down the same street into which the officer had disappeared.

"FREE-DOME!!" We heard him before we saw him hurrying back in our direction. "Ree-chee Heavans!!

"That's it! Richie Havens!! We chatted a few more minutes, and he sang "Free-dome" a few more times. I asked Mike to take my photo with my new "cousin" (It's below.).

"Como si chiama?" I wanted to know his name.

"Vincenzo Russo," he replied proudly. "Io sono il comandante della polizia municipale di Spoleto."
He is chief of police. He cheek-kissed me again. "Ciao, cugina e amici." (So long, cousin and friends.)

The four of us are still talking about our chance encounter with that kind man. If we see him again, we just might take him to lunch or dinner.

                  Moi with Comandante Russo

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Catching Up With Friends

"Our battered suitcases were piled on
the sidewalk again. We had longer
ways to go."
~ Jack Kerouac

Yesterday, as I mentioned, was one of those travel days which always wear us out. Eveen though we had two relatively easy train rides — first from Torino to Rome (via Milano, Bologna, and Florence) and then from Rome to Spoleto — it was still pretty taxing. I'm not someone who likes to sit still for long periods of time.

As we arrived at Rome's Termini train station, we met up with friends of ours who had just flown in from Las Vegas. The hook-up was so easy given the fact that Termini is one chaotic and crazy place. . . We got off our train, and our exhausted friends, Bob and Steph, were waiting near the next train.

"Should we get on now?" someone asked, and we all dragged our luggage to Binario 2 (Platform 2).

"Let's go down to the second or third car," I suggested. "The first one seems rather crowded." Off we went, and we climbed into car #2, threw our bags overhead, and sank into four comfortable seats facing one another.

"Did you get any sleep?" I asked.

"No," Bob advised. "I read a book."

"I don't sleep well on planes," said Stephanie. "I couldn't get comfortable." We small-talked for about 15-20 minutes. The talk was just catching up and such, as you would expect.

Suddenly, a man stopped beside my seat.

"Dees-a car-a no secondo class-a."

"Scusi?" "What?" "Sorry?" we all said at once.

"Dees-a car-a no secondo class-a. You move-a da odder car." He pointed in the direction of the first car that we had skipped because it was so crowded.

"How much would it cost to stay here?" Bob asked.

"Tir-teen=a euro."

"For all four?"

"Itch-a," the conductor said, and we all stood up. Paying more than double the ticket price just to stay in those seats seemed ridiculous to all of us, so we yanked our bags up the aisle and into the next car which was, as we saw when we walked by it, FULL. Finally we got two seats in one row and two in another and settled in.

After the second stop, four seats across from where Steph and I were sitting opened up. We grabbed them, and the guys joined us. One of the guys sitting across the aisle from Bob leaned toward him and started talking rather loudly.

"What did you say?" Bob asked.

"What you ask?" the loud guy asked Bob.

"We didn't hear what you said," either Mike or Bob said back to him.

"What you care? I talkin' to my frien."

"We thought you were talking to us. You were leaning this way," Bob said. The guy leaned back to his seat, but every so often, he leaned back towards Bob.

"I'm glad I remembered to use deodorant," Bob said once when the leaner straightened up in his own seat. Sitting the farthest from the leaner, I knew what Bob meant, if you get my drift. I most certainly got the leaner's drift. :-)

About 90 minutes after we left Termini, we arrived in Spoleto.... warm, sunny, beautiful Spoleto. The owner from whom we were renting our apartments had emailed and told us her husband would meet us at the train station at 14:58. We arrived three minutes late, and hauled our suitcases through the small station and out to the parking lot to look for Laurie who, as you probably can guess, was not there.

"He wouldn't have left if the train was a few minutes late," Bob said. I walked to the other side of the station to see if, perhaps, our wayward landlord was there. Nope. A few cars pulled into the lot, and each time we looked expectantly in the driver's direction. No Laurie. A Fiat pulled into the handicap space in front of us. Lighting a skinny cigarette (You might remember that I love those.), the driver got out and just stood there. He didn't look at us as he was concentrating on his smokes and his cell phone.

"Do you think that's him?" someone asked me.

"I don't think so. He's speaking Italian, and Laurie is British," I replied as the guy stubbed his cigarette and walked into the station. (By the way, he was about as handicapped as I am, and that isn't much.)

Bob decided to call, and Laurie advised that he didn't realize that we were all arriving at 14:58 but that he would be down quite quickly to get us. A few minutes later, a car larger than the Fiat pulled into the lot.

"Is that him?" someone asked.

"Do you think he looks British?" someone else commented.

It wasn't, and he didn't, but a few minutes after that, Laurie did showed up and flashed his lights
as he approached the parking lot.

'"This mix-up has caused a stir," Laurie advised us as we crowded into his car. "I'm hoping we don't get a divorce over it. I didn't know you were coming in at 3, and I didn't know there were four of you." He went on about being sorry about the mistake and then started pointing out where the groceries and shops and restaurants were as we passed by them...like any of us would remember that two minutes after we hit our flats.

                                  Bob and Stephanie today

 He gave us our keys and instructions . . . Don't operate the washer and oven at the same time. Don't leave the key in the lock at night. Use the round keys for the security door, the square keys for the doors to the apartments, and the small key for the big security gate if it's closed at night. We're here on the map. The sites are there on the map. Do this. Go here. Try this. Consider that. My head hurt.

We're all settled in, and we had a fun day exploring the town today. We met a few great locals, but those are stories for another night.  I do have to add that I wish I had had the thought to take a photo of the four of us at the Spoleto train station yesterday. We were all so tired, though, so the thought just never entered my brain.

Tomorrow, we're planning to hit Assisi. I'm looking forward to seeing that beautiful town again. I'll let you know how it was....

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cozy Houses

Royal Palace in Torino
"I like cozy, intimate houses."
~ Tori Amos

"What in the name of heaven," I asked Mike yesterday as we toured some royal palace in Torino yesterday, "did the royalty do with all of these rooms?"

"Beats me," he said. "It's quite excessive, isn't it?" Excessive is an understatement, if you ask me.

Let me tell you a couple of things we learned while doing a marathon tour of museums (formerly palaces) yesterday:

1) Cristina of France decided to build a church to St. Cristina. Right next to it across a very narrow alley is the church of San Carlo, built by Carlo Emanuele I. They are called the "twin churches." Why they needed two identical churches side-by-side, I don't know. I do have to admit that St. Cristina is a prettier church, though.

Two more wings of the palace
2) Th ceilings in royal palaces and the residences of the wealthy were very high. The middle class (such as it was) lived above them and had lower ceilings. 'The poorest lived in the garrets with very little head space. (No wonder they all look stooped over in paintings.)

3) In Torino, the Savoys built covered walkways from the palaces to the river so that they could walk between everything without getting wet when it rained.

4) People were pretty short centuries ago. I already knew that, but the tourist information blamed poor diet for lack of height.

5) Some of those royals really liked ugly furnishings. Ok. If you're insulted by that statement, remember that we each have our own tastes, and I apologize if you really like the Baroque period.

6) The royals often built chapels off the side of a number of different rooms so they could pray privately....or they could count their money and jewels in private.

Now, let me ask you this: Why did the king need a throne room? Actually, some of the palaces have separate throne rooms for the king and queen. Why did they need two? Do you ever wonder what they did in the throne rooms all day? Did the queens sit and gossip? Did her handmaids knit? Play bridge? Did the jesters really entertain?

Carlo Emanuele's Throne Room
And how about the ballrooms? How often did they hold dances? How many people attended them? "Where did they keep their guests' coats?" I wondered as we went through one large ballroom that obviously had no closet space.

"They probably didn't wear coats," Mike replied, "although it did snow here. Maybe they had to dress heavily just to keep warm even inside. There are no fireplaces in the ballrooms." That made sense.

"Who," Mike asked me, "had the job of cleaning out the 'throne' room?"

The small dining room

"It was a pretty crappy job, so it was probably was someone who lived in the garret." I tell you, at times we entertain ourselves with nonsense. ;-)

Yes. Yes. I really do wonder about this stuff, and we do laugh over some of it. It's not anything they ever mentioned in World History now, was it?

At any rate, we arrived in Spoleto today after a rather long train ride (again). We're here for two and a half weeks, so no more trains for a bit. We caught up with friends from Las Vegas today, and, as always, we had an adventure involved.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Shroud, A Bun & A Chip

 The Faux Shroud of Turin on display at the Duomo

"Most of what has lived on earth
has left behind no record at all."
~ Bill Bryson

"What do you want to do in Turin?" Mike asked me while were on the marathon train ride here the other day.

"I don't care what we do as long as we go to see the Shroud of Turin," I said.  To be to be perfectly honest, I didn't even really care if we saw that, although I didn't say it.

"You know you probably won't see it," he replied. 

"You mean like I couldn't see Mother Theresa in the cinnamon bun or Jesus in the potato chip?"  I was serious.  We lived in Nashville when a local coffee shop, Bongo Java, became famous for having baked a cinnamon bun that supposedly bore an eery resemblance to Mother Theresa.  The "NunBun" brought them so much attention that they started selling items with the image on them.  Mother Theresa's lawyers (Who knew the nun had lawyers?) eventually wrote and asked BJ to stop making money from the bun. (It's a long story.)  I saw photos of the thing and eventually saw it in person, but I never could see Mother Theresa in that thing.  Maybe it's because I was not a believer, if you get my drift.

At any rate, Mike answered, "Nooo.  I mean the shroud is probably so faded you won't be able to see it."

"Well, I still want to see it."  I still don't know why, but I did.  Unfortunately, when we got to the hotel and I started looking for information on the Shroud, I found out that the public can't see it, anyway.   Due to its very advanced and age fragile condition, the Church keeps it under lock and key except for special events (the last being 2007).  A "faux" representative of the Shroud sits behind glass in a chapel in the duomo in Turin.

I don't want to bore you with the details about the history of the Shroud which you can find easily by Googling it.  It's been in the news recently as scientists at a university in Padova (Padua) did more research on its age and found it to be older than originally thought.  You can read a little about that here if you're interested.  Suffice to say, though, that I was still interested in seeing the church.

After going through four museums and taking a ride on the tourist bus, we finally headed for the duomo late in the afternoon.  Located near the Royal Palace, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (the duomo) is a rather small church considering its prominence in the city.  There are a number of side altars and chapels, one of which holds the faux Shroud.

Main altar in the Duomo

There weren't a lot of people in the cathedral when we walked in, so we were able to sit and watch a little film about the Shroud uninterrupted by throngs of moving tourists.  We then walked over to the side altar where the enlarged piece of the Shroud is.  I took one photo (the first one above) and lifted the camera to take a second.

"No, signora. No."  A guard waved his hand at me. "No foto."

"Oops. Sorry. Mi dispiace. (Excuse me.)" I apologized.  "Sorry."

We sat a few more minutes and then walked out of the duomo.

"Did that guy just stop me from taking a non-flash photo of a fake Shroud?" I asked Mike as we walked down the duomo steps?  "Am I missing something here?

"I didn't get it." Mike was as confused as I.  "It wasn't even the whole thing or the right size or anything."

"Unless they want to make sure you buy a postcard or holy card or poster with the image, it makes no sense to me."  I shook my head.  "He didn't say anything when I took the first one."

"He didn't see you."

"Not my fault.  He should have been more vigilant."

So, I got to see the faux Shroud, and I guess I see the image in the faux linen.  

By the way, if you're interested in the NunBun story, you can read it here.  Believe me, though, that in person, that thing doesn't look like Mother Theresa at all.

We're out of here in the morning.... another train ride through Roma to Spoleto.  I'll see you on the when we hit Umbria.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Is It Beef?

Mike placing his order for "mit" at Eataly
"I've eaten rotten, filthy food that I knew would make me sick
on many occasions just to be a good guest. I really go out of
my way to eat anything to be a good guest."
~ Anthony Bourdain

"You're not going to believe this," Mike said as we ate dinner last night, "but this dinner is much better than what I had last night." I burst out laughing.

"If I had not just swallowed, you'd have a piece of Vesuvio on your forehead," I managed to spit out between laughs.

We were in the Pasta e Pizza place in Eataly, the Italian uber market that contains mini restaurants in addition to a gazillion food and drink items.  Vesuvio is a pasta shape named for the famous mount, and we were enjoying it with a simple tomato sauce and bufala mozzarella cheese.

The night before, we'd gone to Chez Nani for our last dinner in Avignon.  The menu looked good, and the place was warm and inviting.  They also had a few tables open on a Saturday night, so, we thought we'd stop there.  After studying the menu, Mike decided that he might try the cannelloni because he was sick of the fries that accompanied every other dish.

"The cannelloni, is it good?" he asked the waitress.  She gave him two enthusiastic thumbs up.  Not thrilled about fries, either, I still ordered the boeuf brochette. In addition, I figured we were heading to Italy the next day, and no one does Italian food like Italians.  (Besides, I might add, I had French lasagna, and I wasn't wild about having it float in bechamel sauce.  Ugh.)

At any rate, when they delivered Mike's cannelloni (below), we both stared at it.

"What the hell is that?" I asked. I didn't want to tell him that it looked like Gravy Train. We both continued to stare at it.  

Now, I have to tell you, in case you don't know, that cannelloni are cylinders of pasta filled with something, usually cheese or ground meat, and covered with sauce, usually red. As you can probably tell by the photo, cannelloni frances were not filled cylinders, nor were they covered with tomato sauce.  What he got were sheets of pasta layered with a few carrots, onions, and little ground beef. All of it was swimming in bourguignon gravy.

Cannelloni a la frances

"Do you want a taste?" he asked me half-way through dinner.

"No offense, but NO," I answered probably a bit too quickly.  I didn't want to tell him, but the more he ate of it, the worse it looked.  "Do you want some beef or fries?"
He declined on the beef by ate about half of my fries. "It didn't taste quite as bad as it looked," he said as we left.  

"That wouldn't be hard," I laughed. "It looked pretty awful."

Fast forward to tonight.  We enjoyed Eataly last night, and since it is a block from our hotel, we decided to go back there tonight.  So that you know a little more, let me explain that Eataly was founded in 2007 in Torino (Turin).  It combines the best of the open air food markets, high-end supermarket (like Whole Foods), and food court.  They also have a huge, huge, huge wine and beer cellar.  There's one in Rome, and one opened in NYC in 2010.  I hear they're going to open one in 
 Chicago in September. 

One of the mini restaurants in Eataly

So, back to tonight.  Since we had pasta last night, we decided to try the Carni (Meat) restaurant tonight. (They have meat, fish, vegetarian, pizza/pasta, coffee, gelato, and three or four other restaurants.)

"What does this mean?" Mike asked me about a menu item.

"It's some kind of beef," I replied.  How it was prepared or what cut it was, though, I had no idea.  "Parle inglese?" I asked the gal at the counter if she spoke English.

"No."  Great.  

"Che e?" I think I asked her what that item was.


"Meat?  Beef?" I wondered.  She nodded.  Mike ordered it.

"Beef is safe," he said.

"Pollo arrosto per mi e due prosecco," I ordered.  "Grilled chicken is safer."

We took our wine and went to the table to wait.  Quite quickly they brought Mike's "mit."

"What the hell is that?" I asked. We both stared at the plate (below).  I started laughing, and the waiter just stood there.  "Parle inglese?" I spit out, asking if he spoke English.

The gobbledy-gook Mike ordered tonight Sorry it's blurry. I was laughing.

"No."  How did I know?  Also, at that particular minute, I forgot almost every word of Italian I know.

"Look," Mike pleaded with him, "I don't know what I'm doing. I didn't know what I ordered.  Can you cook this?"

"No."  I was laughing and trying to remember anything in Italian. "Hamburger kook.  NO gobbledy- gook. Usa lime e sale." He pointed at the lemon, mound of salt and lump of meat on Mike's plate, twirled his finger and then walked away.

A few minutes later, a different waiter brought my chicken (below) which was, thankfully, cooked.

Mu chicken...also blurry due to my laughing

 Mike, who hadn't even touched the plate holding the raw meat, tried to reason with that guy.

"I don't know what I'm doing," he said pointing to the plate. "Can you cook this?"

"Parle inglese?" I asked that guy almost simultaneously.

"No." Of course not.

"Boss?  Manager?  Chef?" Mike asked. The guy mumbled something, looked to his left and right, and then walked away.  We figured he was going to get the manager or someone who could speak more than two words of English.

Five minutes passed, and we could see the waiters for that section — including our two — avoiding our area. If we turned our heads towards them, they turned around and walked a different way.  Finally, the first guy had to bring food to the table next to us.  Mike got his attention.

"Please, can you cook this?" Mike asked.  "I can't eat raw meat."

"Caldo, per favore."  I finally remembered the word for hot.  (I do have to admit that I was laughing so hard that I could barely remember English words let alone Italian words. I should get a pass on this.  ;-) )

"No. Gobbledy-gook," he said pointing at Mike's plate. "Hamburger caldo."

"Can I change? Mike was ready to beg. He motioned a change with his hands.

"Caldo.  Caldo." I was trying to help.

"You?  Hamburger?" he asked.  Mike nodded, and the kid grabbed the plate and walked away.

 "He's saying, 'Stupid Americans,'" I laughed.

Ten minutes later, he brought the hamburger (below).

"At least it's cooked a little more," Mike said of the quite rare burger.

"Does it taste all right?" I asked.  I didn't want to mention this (and when he reads it, he finally know it), but I was afraid to ask if it tasted like beef or not.  Europeans do eat horse meat.

The cooked hamburger

 Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the second waiter watching us.  He never approached our area again until after we left.  I don't know if he was afraid of what we would ask or was concerned that I would burst out laughing every few minutes especially after the guy at another table near us ordered whatever it was that Mike had at first. He apparently knew what he was ordering because he put lemon and salt on it and ate it with gusto. Ugh.

Pastries from the Eataly pastry shoppe
 "I guess tomorrow night we'll have pizza if we come back here," Mike said as we left.

We'll see. 

The coffee bar in Eataly

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On the road again

                            Avignon train station, 9am today

"Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to 
trust strangers and to lose sight of all
that familiar comfort of home and friends . . ."
                                            ~ Caesar Pavase

I don't know where to start.  How about this:  It started raining in Torino (Turin) as our train arrived.  Surprise!

Actually, it was gloomy almost everywhere we traveled today except for Avignon which was, once again, sunny and getting warm.  Sigh.

This was the longest train ride we've ever taken. We left Avignon at a little before 9 and arrived in Torino around 4:30 after a short stop in Lyon.  

"Holy crap!  Where are all these people going?" I asked.

"Let's find our seats and then worry about luggage," Mike said ignoring the question and trying to yank his luggage down the aisle crowded with people who didn't want to move.  "These are our seats."
I looked as he tried to pick his backpack up.  "These are 91 and 92.  We're in 61 and 62."  Thank 
goodness he was wrong because 91 and 92 were in a foursome while our seats were just duplex.  As it was, we had to sit with pack backs under our legs.

Other than the fact that the women behind us didn't shut up for more than four hours and the little kid across the aisle decided to start cackling about half-way through the trip, it was rather uneventful and really okay. I think part of the problem with travel is that once you make train or plane reservations, you are at the mercy of others.  A friend told me that the reason I don't like flying is that I'm not in control.  I guess that's true of both flying and traveling by train. 

"How are you feeling, Punkin?" Mike asked me a few times today. He means well, and he's concerned about this stupid cold in addition to the fact that he knows how I tense up on travel days.

"Tired. Cranky. Achy." I can be brutally honest at times.  "I'll be okay once we get there."  

The second part of the journey actually didn't feel like it had taken more than four hours.  We made a few stops along the way, and I think that helped break it up.  At each stop, the conductor would make an announcement of where we were and that we should watch our luggage and take everything with us.

(Side note:  Interestingly, when we left Avignon, all the announcements were in French, only.  When we left Lyon, all the announcements were in French and Italian.  At the second stop after Lyon, they added English to the mix, and when we crossed through Switzerland, they added German. )

                   Somewhere in Switzerland as we zip by

"It's raining" Mike announced as we pulled our luggage off the train and up to the taxi stand.  Was I surprised?  

"Of course it is," I'm sure I snapped. "We're here."

"What's the weather supposed to be tomorrow and Tuesday?"

"Partly sunny and mostly dry."  I sighed.  

"We're here, though, so it will rain . . . and the museums will be closed . . . and the tour buses will run only one route."  He can be so funny sometimes, and I was almost doubled over laughing.

"And they serve cannelloni with gravy instead of sauce."  (If you didn't see the photo of his last dinner in Avignon, hold on until tomorrow.)

We're settled in a hotel for three nights before we take off for Spoleto.  We Skyped with Mary and Riley (and Mary's husband, Don) yesterday and Jason today.  Actually, Jason called twice.  The second time he said, "Mom! I can't find your recipe for stuffed mushrooms.  How do I make them?"

Here I am, thousands of miles away, no cookbook in sight, and the kid wants my recipe for stuffed mushrooms.  

Gosh, it made me feel great.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Au Revoir, France - Part 1

Avignon through the windows of Palais du Papes

"The sweetness and generosity and politeness
and gentleness and humanity of the French
had shown me how lovely life can be if only
one takes the time to be friendly."
~ Julia Child

Today was our last full day in France. It makes me sad to think that this part of the journey is over even though I'm thrilled to know that tomorrow at this time, we'll be in Italy.

I'm so glad we've had this time, however short, in France. It's gone a long way in changing my mind about the country. We've met a few curmudgeons, but curmudgeons live everywhere (and believe me, I know a LOT of them in the States....). I think trying to say a few words in French goes a long way with people, just as trying to speak English in America would. Agree?

Anyway, it was chilly and cloudy again today, and we had a few instances of rain. While we were having coffee this morning, I kept looking at the old, old buildings around the plaza where we were.

"I can't imagine living in a place this old," I said.

"What do you mean by that?" Mike asked me.

"It means I can't imagine living in a place this old. What else would it mean?" I snipped back.

"Then you couldn't live anywhere in Europe," he replied.

"That's not what I meant. I could live here. I just can't imagine living in a building that is hundreds of years old." I couldn't figure out why he would think I said I couldn't live here. "We don't have the same type of building in the States. We've talked about that for two weeks."  I mean, come on.  I was clear with what I meant.  (Of course, let me add here that Riley would have to be part of the package. ;-) )

"That's not how I took it," he said.

Stone street in Avignon

It makes perfect sense to me. I look at the old buildings, the narrow streets and alleys, the roads paved with smooth rock and cobblestones and think how different it is from the life most of us know. I wonder how the people survived life in the circumstances they faced in these towns hundreds of years ago. The history is overwhelming, and what we don't know is so amazing and exciting.

Tonight Mike and I had champagne with Amaury and Giles, the owners of our flat in Avignon. Their apartment is above the studio where we're staying, and they showed us around it and around the new property that they're renovating at the end of our street. (When I say end of the street, think small.  Fifty steps to the right will put you on the main drag, and twenty to the left put you at the gate shown below.)

The house they bought was, most recently, a school where they taught French to foreigners and English to the French.  However, in its first life, it belonged to the Catholic Church, and part of it was the residence of a cardinal, and the other part was a nun's convent.

"Le révolution put end to that," Amaury told us.  "They chase off the sisters an' make them run away."

"They kill them," Giles added while drawing his finger across his neck.

"They killed nuns?"  This information shocked me.

"Oui. Le révolution, she was not good for them."  Yikes.

The gate to Amaury & Gilles's new property
Without going into a lot of detail, let me just say that Amaury and Giles are renovating the 16th century property now, and while they aren't going to make it religious in any way, they hope to renew the feeling of peace and friendship, spirituality, and good that once existed there.

"We love meeting people" Amaury said, "and we want a place for all kinds of artists to come.  How you say it?"

"Like a retreat?"

"Oui.  Retreat."

Amaury, Moi & Giles

If you've read this blog since its inception, you may remember that I mentioned Amaury and Gilles a few months ago.  I said that Amaury sent a quick and friendly reply to my inquiry about renting the flat and that I felt like I already knew him after several emails between us.  I really do feel that way with both of them. They are sweet, generous, polite, gentle, and kind.  We're better for having met them.

By the way, the flat in which we're staying and the apartment where Amaury and Giles live was once home to Jean-Pierre Gras (1879-1964), a sculptor, painter and ceramist from Avignon.  The studio in the front of their apartment is a two-story, glassed-in room that has absolutely beautiful light. I can imagine painting or writing or sculpting in that space.

And, yes, I could live here.... at least for a little while.

Side note:  We'll be leaving Avignon tomorrow before many of you say Au revoir to today.  Have a great rest of your Saturday!